Monday, 15 May 2017

Left, Right, or Optimal?

Whenever a label causes more disagreement about what it is supposed to mean than helps to identify what is on offer, it is time to discard it.

‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have had a good run, but what do they really mean anymore?

Who seriously thinks that more nationalisation or privatisation is always a good thing regardless of circumstance? Is it more in line with the ‘Left’ to want to protect jobs in the nuclear or fossil fuel business, or to press for withdrawal from those sectors on environmental grounds? Won’t most people be concerned when they learn about vulnerable people suffering without help, or when they hear that the economy is faltering because businesses are hit by unfair competition and systemic instability?

Some on the ‘Right’ may still want to keep shrinking the state, but many are unhappy that the shrinking has gone too far, especially when it affects policing and military budgets as well. Meanwhile, few among those who champion freedom as the overriding value are at ease with being bombarded with demands to curtail the freedom of people on grounds of their race, religion, gender, or sexuality. Some feel that a nation should look to itself and ignore other countries’ conflicts, while others believe a strong country will always make its presence felt all over the world.

Instead of squeezing disparate outlooks into ill-defined boxes, would it not make more sense to see what people’s views are in response to, not one-sided presentations of an issue, but accounts of problems with the relevant facts?

For example, most people are inclined to agree that government should leave people to it if they are managing fine by themselves, but ought to step in when there are problems that will get a lot worse without state involvement. Few would object to the government using the necessary powers and resources to keep us safe from terrorism, crime, squalor, disease, and other forms of debilitating insecurity; provided there is democratic oversight and proper accountability. Hardly anyone believes that all must bow down to a single rigid code of worship and behaviour, and fewer still think that people can do whatever they want regardless of the harm they can cause to others.

Rather than arguing what ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ position should be, perhaps we should just focus on working out what the most optimal approach is to dealing with the problems we face. Why assume benefit payments must be higher or lower, when the question is how can people get a job with at least subsistent pay, and what safety net would actually be adequate? Why insist on harsher or more lenient punishment, when the issue is what sentence would be proportionate to the injustice caused, protect society, and improve future behaviour? Why press for an arbitrary level of immigration, when the numbers allowed in should relate to the needs of existing residents? And why assume state regulation must be good or bad, when what matters is whether the proposed regulation will help or hinder our safety and prosperity?

It can be difficult at times to let go of tribal colours or totemic symbols. But when it comes to the wellbeing of our society, we’ll all gain if we can push aside unhelpful labels, and concentrate on finding out what the most optimal solutions are likely to be.

Monday, 1 May 2017

To Share or Not To Share

How is wealth shared out amongst the people who have worked together to produce it?

According to a survey of the FTSE 100 companies, the average pay gap between top and bottom is 262:1. In one company, a major retailer, it is in the region of 656:1 [Note 1]. No wonder the wealthy few keep getting richer while others are left further behind. Oxfam has found that the richest eight people in the world now have as much money as the poorest 50% of the planet’s population. The gap is widening ever more between those who have to endure hardships every day and those who have a hard job working out what to do with their vast fortune.

But is this because there is no alternative? Actually, better options are in front of us if we care to look. Worker cooperatives enable those who work in them to share more fairly the responsibilities and rewards associated with their collective endeavours. Everyone has an equal vote in making the key decisions. In hard times, they all take reduced pay rather than jettison those who are the easiest to make redundant. In good times, everyone has a say in how to divide the growth in revenue. Worker cooperatives have been found to be more resilient and more productive than conventionally structured companies. There are lower absentee rates, fewer internal disputes, and higher job satisfaction [Note 2].

Social democratic governance is another way to bring about healthier economies and more stable societies. For example, the cumulative impact of the ‘let the rich get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer’ policies of three successive Republican Presidents that led to the Great Depression, were rectified by the New Deal approach of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The vast debts and gloom of post-war Britain were overturned by the Attlee Government that established the National Health Service, provided the welfare state safety net, increased affordable housing for all, and boosted people’s purchasing power to sustain a social and economic equilibrium. Such policies were pushed aside by the New Right since its ascendency from the 1980s on, but they can be re-formulated to meet today’s needs, provided they are effectively explained to the electorate and we back them with our votes.

One last point to note is that as technological advancement is accelerating, there is no reason to stick with the fallacious assumption that the rich owners of such technology must inevitably take an even greater share while more people are made redundant and left with nothing. The truth is that technological achievements can be made as an endowment for everyone, not just a privileged few. This is not a fanciful wish but a way of life for many of our greatest innovators.

Alexander Fleming’s research led directly to the discovery of penicillin and the development of antibiotics. Norman Borlaug invented new crop breeding technology that would substantially increase food supply, which has been estimated to have helped save a billion lives around the world. Tim Berners Lee devised the ultimate global information sharing platform we know as the World Wide Web. None of these people extracted any profit out of their discovery or invention. Instead they allowed the world to share the immense benefits that have flowed from them.

Next time we hear someone saying that sharing is for impractical dreamers only, we can start by sharing with them the above facts [Note 3].

[Note 1] A Third of a Per Cent (2011), report published by the One Society.
[Note 2] What do we really know about worker co-operatives? (2016) by V. Pérotin, published by Co-operatives UK.
[Note 3] For practical advice on converting to a worker co-op, contact:
Coop UK: ;
FairShares Association: